The Problem of Time in “My Mother’s Money,” a Memoir

Alexis Grant, (The Traveling Writer), posed a provocative question on Twitter: How were memoir writers “playing with time . . . for the sake of the story arc?”

Since this is a problem I’ve faced—and probably will continue to face—in the memoir I’m writing, it’s helpful for me to think consciously about how I’m handling the sequence of events in my narrative to create a strong story. My goal is for readers of my memoir to experience the suspense, studded with unexpected revelations, that I did.

We writers have it drummed into us that we need an arresting opening to capture our audience’s interest right from the start. Writing my memoir chronologically might not have accomplished that. So, I decided to sprinkle the bombshells throughout the story—often, but not always, alternating incident and bombshell. I hope I’ve used a light enough touch so that readers won’t notice that device.

Then there’s memory. As I wrote, I recalled incidents from the past that fed into my story. So, I interspersed those memories, allowing the story to turn back on itself occasionally. I think that adds richness and context.

The memoir starts by setting the physical and psychological stage for the story. By the fourth paragraph, a smallish challenge is laid out. Then I insert the memory of an incident from the past that is relevant to this challenge. It involves my mother’s caution: If something happens to me, don’t throw anything out.

The second chapter goes back to my childhood, to pertinent facts—and financial incidents—in my immediate family. The third brings us to a big surprise, as the challenge escalates. The next lays out financial eccentricities of my immediate ancestors. So the present and past are also alternating.

And then, the quest, with its twists and surprises, begins in earnest.

4 thoughts on “The Problem of Time in “My Mother’s Money,” a Memoir

  1. Lynette, thanks so much for posting Alexis Grant’s thoughts on this. I wrestle with the question of time too and am only now finding ways to rise above the tendency to lay things out in neat, chronological, boring straight lines.

  2. Hi, Maria:

    I’m so glad Alexis posted the question. It made me really think about why I chose not to write My Mother’s Money chronologically. I really want to grab readers—and take them on a journey that reveals things little by little. Like you, I thought chronological would be “boring.”

    But I’ll confess one problem I HAVE had: choosing which of the many dramatic moments in the story I should begin with. At this point, I’ve chose one—and I’m sticking with it. 😉 Good luck with yours!

  3. I wonder if the hook at the beginning is so critical for memoir. Certainly when writing a novel, you need to grab the reader, but it would seem that if someone picked up a memoir then they already have a buy-in to read about that person.
    I only read memoirs of people I already have a connection with. Is this so for others?
    Very nice blog, Lynette

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I buy memoirs of people I don’t know, so I think the hook plays an important role for me. (I know publishers like it!)

    Now that I know how to comment on your site, I’ll get right over there. Your subject is interesting and unusual.

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